the grateful guest

I love party planning; the recipe research, list making, ingredient shopping and tabletop setting. Sure it’s a lot of time, work and money but what can I say— I truly enjoy that meal savored, compliments accepted, pots n’ pans washed feeling of a dinner well done. But ya know what I like even more? Occasionally being the guest rather than the host. Yup you read right, sometimes I prefer to be responsible for nothing more than a hostess gift and a side, rather than the whole shebang. Seriously. Instead of missing out on conversations because I’m stuck in the kitchen, watching the clock like a hawk to ensure that everything comes out hot, washing and packing back away countless pots, pans, dishes, glasses, platters, bowls, napkins and tablecloths… I get to drink wine, nibble on appetizers, chit-chat and relax.

So you may be wondering, what do I bring when the opportunity to be a grateful guest should arise. Well I’ll tell you. I like to bring a bottle of wine, something I know the host will enjoy whether they decide to open it at the gathering or not, and a dish that requires minimal serving effort. There’s nothing worse than having someone show up at your house with a contribution, that in theory is intended to make the dinner easier on you, but in reality requires elaborate assembly and/or preparation. For me the answer is always something that can be made at home, transported easily and (ideally) served at room temperature. Something like a cheese platter, a salad of some sort, dessert (a total no brainer) or an array of crudités and dips.

People love dip, it’s an undeniable fact. Give them something to dunk, dip or slather and they’re happy as clams. And why not— its easy, unpretentious and personally… makes me think of childhood. As a product of the 70’s I have fond memories of old school Lipton Onion Soup Dip served alongside a big ol’ bag of greasy crinkle potato chips. Man, it really didn’t get much better. I would never consider going the Lipton route now but I’m fairly confident that if I did, it would get devoured in no time flat. (Because let’s be honest— corn syrup, hydrolyzed soy protein, caramel color, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, monosodium glutamate and yeast extract may be unhealthy, but they’re just as yummy as they were in 1978!)

When I bring a crudité platter I like serve it with a couple of homemade “healthy” dips. Hummus is always an option and sometimes guacamole, but when I want to switch things up a bit I make Rosemary White Bean Dip or a super simple Feta & Lemon Dip. They’re delicious, can easily be doubled and the leftovers makes great sandwich spreads. I haven’t discounted the idea of attempting to create a healthy/from scratch version of everyone’s beloved Lipton Onion Soup dip, so keep your eyes out for that sometime in the near future. However something tells me that no matter how tasty it turns out, it just won’t compare to my MSG tinted memories.

Rosemary White Bean Dip
The rosemary flavor is very subtle, so even if you’re not a huge fan don’t omit it.

2dips3

5 lg. garlic cloves, smashed
4 tbsp. olive oil, divided
1 fat sprig of fresh rosemary
3 tsp. fresh lemon juice
1 can Great Northern Bean, drained and rinsed
1 tbsp. plain Greek yogurt
1/2 tsp. fine sea salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper
crudités, chips or crackers, for serving

  1. In a small skillet warm 2 tbsp. of oil until it shimmers. Add the smashed garlic and rosemary and sauté until the garlic is golden brown. Remove the rosemary spring and discard, add the garlic and oil to the bowl of a food processor.
  2. Add to the food processor the remaining oil, lemon juice, rinsed beans, yogurt, salt and pepper.
  3. Allow to process until the mixture is completely smooth. Transfer to a serving dish and allow to chill before serving.
  4. Serve with crudités, chips or crackers.

*adapted from serious eats

Feta + Lemon Dip
Seriously simple.

8 oz. block feta cheese
3 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
2 garlic cloves, smashed
3 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
lemon zest, for garnish
drizzle of olive oil, for garnish
crudités, chips or crackers, for serving

  1. Break the feta into chunks and place in the bowl of a food processor along with the lemon juice, garlic, and olive oil. Process until smooth and fully combined.
  2. Spoon into a serving bowl, drizzle with a little olive oil, and sprinkle with a bit of fresh lemon zest.
  3. Serve with crudités, chips or crackers.

*adapted from sweet paul magazine

watermelon + feta… i think i ❤ you

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to be invited to attend the Montclair Food & Wine Festival’s Grand Tasting. The event, a fundraiser for Saint Joseph’s Children’s Hospital, was hosted at the Montclair Art Museum and featured more than 30 New Jersey restaurants, distillers, wine distributors and food vendors. The night was a whirlwind of food and people. We started off in the relative calm of the VIP hour and then proceeded downstairs to a literal food frenzy. We tasted nearly everything that was being offered, and what we tasted was some pretty amazing stuff. Raw oysters and clams, and duck liver pate. Curried shrimp with rice and chilled asparagus soup. Injera with lamb and tiny spring vegetable tartlets. Delicious ceviche (one shrimp and one scallop) and down home mac n’ cheese. Not to mention spicy samosas and meatballs like your Italian Grandma used to make. There were a ridiculous number of wines, locally brewed beers, a Pisco Sour table, organic vodka cocktails and a rum punch collaboration between a locally distilled rum with a locally produced cocktail syrup— all available for the sampling (and resampling). And let’s not forget the wild array of desserts that were offered; Macaroons and cheesecake bites. Fall off the wagon worthy toffee and mini whoopie pies. Organic chocolates and a host of other delicious delights that I didn’t even get around to tasting. Sounds like a whole lot of crazy fun, right? Oh, it was.

It may come as a bit of a surprise but, out of the lengthy list of things I ate that night the one bite that stood out the most was the actually simplest one. As much as I enjoyed the exotic and decadent nibbles that were offered, it was actually the tiny tower of cubed watermelon, feta, mint and kalamata olives that kept me coming back for more. I had discovered how well watermelon works with savory ingredients last summer with this Grilled Shrimp & Watermelon Salad, so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by how well this pairing worked together. It was the perfect balance of salty and sweet, fresh and preserved and I knew that I had to replicate it at home. And so I did. And it was delicious.

Watermelon and feta skewers with fresh mint is now—without a doubt—my favorite go-to summer appetizer. Give it a try and it just might be yours too!

Watermelon & Feta Skewers
Seriously this is so simple it doesn’t even need a recipe.

watermelon apps

Fresh watermelon, cubed
Block style feta cheese, cubed
Fresh mint leaves
Kalamata olives, pitted
Long, fancy tooth picks

  1. Start with a cube of watermelon, top with feta, a mint leaf and finally an olive.
  2. Skewer with a fancy tooth pick and marvel at the simple deliciousness.

st. anthony’s + the spani-queen

As a blogger I work very hard at self-promotion. This doesn’t come entirely naturally to me but, if I want an actual audience to read my weekly type written blood, sweat and tears then I have no choice but to promote myself at every opportunity. However sometimes the audience actually finds me all on their own. And once they find me and read what I’ve been rambling on about they actually contact me to say “We like your sassy style and pithy prose, please join our posse!” And so I do…

I was recently invited to join in the preparations for St. Anthony Orthodox Church’s 37th Annual International Festival. Every November St. Anthony’s in Bergenfield, N.J. hosts a three-day event featuring a variety of homemade Greek, Middle Eastern, Slavic and Eastern European foods. In the weeks leading up to the festival the parish gathers together to make the vast array of foods that will feed hungry festival-goers. I’m never one to turn down a good culinary opportunity, so when invited to join the food prep fun I wholeheartedly agreed. The night I went to help they were making spanakopita, mountains and mountains of spanakopita.

I’ll be honest with you, prior to joining the crew at St. Anthony’s my experience with spanakopita was strictly limited to eating, but Master Spani Chef Jim Bogris wasted no time introducing me to the secrets of the perfect spanakopita. Jim’s recipe is based on his mother Angela’s, who as it happens was the festivals “Spani-Queen” for twenty plus years prior handing the reigns over to her son. She still lends a hand in the assembly but leaves the heavy lifting and stirring of an enormous caldron of spinach mixture to the younger folks. (Smart lady!) According to Jim what sets his recipe apart from others is the amount of fresh herbs he uses and the three cheese; Pecorino Romano, ricotta and feta. Oh and he has a motto that goes something like this “There is no such thing as too much butter. If you think you’ve used enough, use a little more.”

I think I need that printed on a shirt…

Yai-Yai’s Spanakopita
This recipe has been handed down through generations of the Bogris family. I wouldn’t think of tweaking it and honestly, it doesn’t need a thing changed anyway.*

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1 lb. #7 phyllo dough sheets
3/4 to 1 lb. clarified butter (homemade or store-bought)
1/2 cup olive oil
1 bunch scallions, finely chopped
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1/2 bunch dill, minced
1 bunch parsley, minced
1 lb. crumbled feta cheese
1/2 lb grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1 lb. ricotta cheese (whole milk)
6 eggs, beaten
3 lbs. frozen chopped spinach (thawed, drained and squeezed dry)

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. In large pot heat olive oil, add scallions, onions, dill, parsley, and sauté until soft.
  2. Add spinach to pot and sauté another 10-15 minutes (mixing continuously so it doesn’t stick).
  3. In a large bowl mix crumbled feta, Romano cheese, ricotta cheese and eggs. Add to pot and mix thoroughly.
  4. Butter the bottom of a 9 x 13 pan and cover with a sheet of phyllo. Continue layering sheets of phyllo and buttering each layer with pastry brush, placing on the bottom a total of 8 buttered layers of phyllo dough.
  5. Top the phyllo layers with the spinach mixture.
  6. Cover with 8 more layers of buttered phyllo dough (again, buttering each individually while tucking in the sides.
  7. Score the top two layers of phyllo in triangles or squares, being careful not to cut into the mixture.
  8. Bake for 45 minutes or until golden brown on top.

*courtesy of st. anthony’s church

*According to Jim the spanakopita can be made ahead, wrapped in foil then plastic wrap and frozen for several months. Allow it to defrost in the refrigerator overnight and bake uncovered for 45-50 minutes at 350°F.

wrap it up!

I was recently looking over all the recipes I’ve shared with you in the past year and a half and one thing struck me; for a blog named beets and blue cheese I’ve only posted one recipe that uses either ingredient. Crazy, right? So I decided to remedy that by featuring beets and/or blue cheese in every recipe I post in the month of July. Some of the recipes may surprise you, some may make you rush out to buy the ingredients ASAP and some may make you roll your eyes and click on over to Facebook— and I’m perfectly okay with that. Although what I’m honestly hoping happens is that one or two of you so-called “beet haters” read my pithy prose, perhaps chuckle at my sassy repartee and ultimately agree to try a recipe or two. Then (gasp!) you become converted beet lovers. So here goes…

I had been testing recipes for Clean Eating Magazine before they suddenly folded. In my past life I was a magazine designer and I too have lived through the trials and tribulations of having a magazine close. It’s not fun. Clean Eating was a great magazine and I’m sad to see it go. However it’s thanks to them that I discovered a new way to enjoy beets— raw! I love beets (I know, shocking right?) but I’ve never eaten them any way but roasted. I like the way roasting brings out their natural sweetness and makes them perfect to slice into salad, eat as a side dish or even throw in a smoothie. Well I’m here to tell you that you that roasting is in fact not the only way to go. It turns out that you haven’t experienced crunchy, clean and delicious until you’ve tried beets raw. I grated them along with some carrot, added a bit of garden greens, homemade hummus and feta cheese and wrapped it all up in a multi-grain wrap— holy deliciousness!

Tom Robbins had it right.”…Breathe properly. Stay curious. And eat your beets…”

Raw Beet, Hummus & Feta Wrap
I love beets but this is the first time I’ve ever eaten them raw. They’re delicious, almost better raw than cooked!

beet & feta wrap

1 multi grain wrap
2 tbsp. homemade hummus
1/2 cup grated raw beet
1/4 cup grated raw carrot
Small handful mixed baby greens
2-3 tbsp. crumbled feta

  1. Spread hummus in the center portion of the wrap. Sprinkle evenly with the beets, carrots, feta and greens.
  2. To roll up; fold in 2 opposite sides of the wrap and roll starting with the end closest to you. Slice each wrap in half on the diagonal and enjoy.

*adapted from clean eating magazine

weirdly wonderful watermelon

“Now watermelon time is here.
And when the day is warm and clear,
Our uncle thumps the green balloon
And says it’s ripe and very soon, A splash of pink comes into view.
We know exactly what to do.
We take a bit. We take a bite. We eat and eat
And taste the summer pink and sweet.”
~Leland B. Jacobs

There are few more perfect symbols of summertime than watermelon. It’s a sweet, refreshing and all-American barbecue favorite, which also just happens to be a nutritional powerhouse. According to The National Watermelon Promotion Board (who knew?!?) “2 cups of watermelon chunks contain 25% of your daily vitamin A and 30% of your daily vitamin C. Watermelon also contains B6 (6%) as well as potassium (8%), phosphorus (4%) and magnesium (8%).” Not bad stats, right?

We go through a lot of watermelon in our house, on average one good-sized melon a week. My kids and most of their friends consider it to be the perfect anytime snack and I often throw a handful of chunks in my morning smoothie. But I recently started thinking about other ways to use this sweet treat, possibly in a more savory fashion. What did we ever do in the days before Google?… I found recipes for pickled watermelon, blw’s (bacon, lettuce and watermelon sandwich), watermelon pad-thai, and even grilled watermelon burgers with cheese; but none of these recipes begged to be tried. No, the recipe I decided to get watermelon crazy with was a grilled shrimp and watermelon salad with feta cheese, onion and avocado and tossed with a honey-lime vinaigrette.

I happen to be a fan of savory/sweet flavor combinations. Jelly and cheese sandwich… sure! Candied bacon… yes please! Carrot sticks and peanut butter… but of course! However I’ve never eaten watermelon as anything but a component of fruit salad, a sweet and refreshing end to a fun barbecue or as an addition to a smoothie, so I was intrigued as to how this seemingly crazy savory/sweet salad would turn out.

It was fantastic!

Grilled Shrimp & Watermelon Salad
This is the craziest, yet most delicious combination of flavors you’ll ever put together. Try it once and it will be your go-to summer salad!

watermelon salad 5

15 medium (21/25 count) raw shrimp, peeled
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/4-1/2 tsp. chipotle chili powder
1/4 tsp. smoked paprika
1/4 tsp. garlic powder
3 1/2 cups watermelon, diced into small cubes
1/4 medium sweet onion, sliced thin
1/2 ripe avocado, diced
2 tsp. lime juice
1 tsp. honey
2 tsp. olive oil
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
1/3 cup fresh cilantro leaves, minced
1/2 cup crumbled feta

  1. In a small bowl combine the 1/2 tsp. of salt, chipotle powder, paprika and garlic powder. Sprinkle it over the raw shrimp, making sure they are completely covered with the spice mixture.
  2. Light the grill. While it warms up slice the watermelon and place in a strainer to allow some of the juice to drain out. Quickly grill the shrimp and set aside.
  3. In a small bowl whisk together the lime juice, honey, olive oil, salt and pepper. Combine the shrimp with the onion, watermelon and avocado. Add the feta cheese and cilantro, drizzle with the dressing and gently toss.
  4. Serve immediately and enjoy!

*adapted from real simple

my garden’s bounty

I recently went to see a man about some chickens. No I’m not speaking euphemistically here, I mean actual chickens; hens to be exact. I’m kicking around the idea of perhaps keeping a few in my backyard. Oh what lovely fresh eggs we could have! I’m sure to some of you this seems like no big deal, what’s so strange about having a couple of hens or maybe even a pigmy goat? But the rest of you are probably laughing too hard to even be able to continue reading this. In case I haven’t mentioned it before I live in Northern New Jersey, roughly 11 miles outside of New York City. So close that I imagine if you stood on my roof and looked East you would see midtown Manhattan— not exactly farm country! But that hasn’t stopped me from trying to make the most of my little plot of land. (My mother, who actually does live in the country, gets the biggest kick out of my urban agriculture and refers to my yard as “Green Acres.”) Anyway, I currently have two raised bed gardens filled with veggies (with plans for a third dedicated to garlic, leeks and onions) and a half-dozen or so containers overflowing with a variety of herbs. The kids and I water, tend and harvest something wonderful from our backyard nearly everyday.

While last months heat wave had some dire effects on my cucumbers and squash, the remainder of my garden seems as happy as ever. My cherry tomatoes, jalapeño and cayenne peppers and corn are all ready for the picking, my basil is huge (but has started acting like it wants to start flowering) and my leeks have grown big enough to rival store-bought. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful,” I thought to myself, “if I could make something delicious with this bounty from my garden. Something simple that would let each homegrown ingredient shine.” I started flipping through some cookbooks for inspiration and decided pretty quickly that Ina Garten was the way to go. I love the Barefoot Contessa for her relaxed unpretentious style, her simple, delicious and totally accessible food and the way she seems to enjoy the process of planning and executing a meal the same way I do. I would channel my inner Contessa and come up with a sensational meal.

The dish I ended up making was a sautéed cherry tomato, leek, roasted shrimp and feta cheese combination— and holy cow was it good! I used every ripe vegetable my garden had to offer, some lovely fresh herbs as well as sweet shrimp and salty feta. Served over a little orzo with some crusty bread and a glass of white wine, it was summer perfection in a bowl.

And as for those chickens, I’ll keep you posted…

Roasted Shrimp with Tomatoes, Leeks & Feta
This combination of garden fresh veggies and herbs, sweet shrimp and zesty lemon is fantastic as a first course, entrée or even spooned over thick slices of grilled bread as an appetizer.

4 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 cups leeks, sliced thin (about 3 medium)
4 cloves garlic, sliced thin
1 fresh cayenne pepper, chopped (optional)
1 cup white wine
2 cups halved cherry tomatoes
1 tbsp. tomato sauce
1 tsp. fresh oregano, minced
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 lb. medium shrimp (36/40 count), peeled
6 ounces feta cheese, coarsely crumbled
1/4 cup bread crumbs
1/4 cup panko
2 tbsp. chopped fresh parsley
5 large basil leaves, julienned
the zest of 1/2 a lemon
the juice of 1 lemon

  1. Preheat oven to 400°F. In a large ovenproof skillet heat 3 tablespoons of oil over medium-low heat. Add the leeks, garlic and hot pepper and sautee for 5 minutes. Add the wine and bring to a boil, scraping up any bits that have stuck to the pan. Cook for 2-3 minutes, until the liquid is reduced by half.
  2. Add the cherry tomatoes, tomato sauce, oregano, salt, and pepper to the skillet. Simmer over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes.
  3. Arrange the shrimp in one layer over the tomato mixture and sprinkle the crumbled feta evenly over the shrimp.
  4. In a small bowl combine the bread crumbs, panko, parsley, basil, and lemon zest with the remaining tablespoon of olive oil and sprinkle generously over the shrimp.
  5. Bake for 15 minutes, until the shrimp are cooked and the bread crumbs are golden brown. Squeeze the juice of 1 lemon over the shrimp and top with additional fresh basil. Serve over orzo, rice or on grilled bread.